Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Please Don't Call Me That...

When people first meet me and hear that I am a dog trainer, they immediately say, "You're like the Dog Whisperer!" which sends chills down my spine. A million things run through my mind - I want to retaliate, I want to flip through tons of position statements from rescues, veterinarians, behaviorists, ethologists, researchers - all shunning the concept of training that is employed by The Dog Whisperer. But that would just be weird. People would think I am crazy and end up not listening anyway. So, instead, I just kindly smile and say, "well, we have different views about dog training."

There was a time when "whispering" meant being in-tune emotionally and spiritually. A time when "whispering" was a hands-off approach and required the "whisperer" to reach deep into their inner spirit in order to connect with their subject. The phrase has changed and it now means, to the general public, that I am a dog trainer that performs miracles by being Alpha and not allowing dogs to dominate me. What I actually do is so completely opposite that it actually hurts to hear people compare "whisperers" with me.

I won't go in to the details of the quadrants of operant conditioning. I will spare you the scientific babble that happens to make the behavior nerd in me giddy with joy. What I will ask is this: what does a trainer like myself have to say to convince someone that is using punitive, correction-based, whisper-training to stop? Because, let's face it. No one likes an activist unless you're already on their side. And by then, I'm just preachin' to the choir. How do I reach out and explain to people that there is no need to force, dominate, yell, scream, say "NO!", push, yank (how many more verbs can I throw in here??) in order to achieve a well-trained, obedient (and dare I say...happier!??) dog?

The interesting thing is: many people don't know the damage they are doing to their dogs because, bless their hearts, some dogs can be VERY resilient. Additionally, the owners aren't always doing it to terrorize their dogs. Owners are training this way, well, because that's the way people have done it for years! It's just how it's done. For example, the age old remedy for a dog that pees in the house is to take him to the spot (often WAY to long after the fact) put his nose in it and say "NO!", followed sometimes by a swat on the nose. What owners don't understand is that this actually teaches the dog that pee is bad, not the ACT of peeing in the house. It tells them you, as their owner, do not like pee. So what do they do? They hide it! They go in corners, they go behind the couch...just to spare you the icky pee that you clearly do not like. Aren't they so thoughtful??

Teaching your dog that you are the master isn't necessary, either. If you do it right, they'll figure it out (if you feel that that's even necessary - personally, I do not...) If you provide the shelter, food, water, guidance and exercise you will be seen as very valuable to your dog. That's when you have the decision: either command that your dog listen via force, etc. or teach your dog to trust you via proper positive-reinforcement training. That final piece is what contributes to the relationship you will have with your dog. And it's the relationship that determines whether the dog looks to you for true guidance.

So, instead of me getting on a soapbox every time someone refers to me as the Dog Whisperer, how would you suggest I tactfully and politely decline this title?


  1. Wow, although I'm not a trainer, I ponder this issue all the time. It seems lately that every conversation I have with another dog guardian includes the word "dominant." And you're right, going on the offensive every time isn't going to change anything.

    My puppy's breeder is a wonderful person who raises lovely, gentle dogs. Because he's a very kind man who has sweet, kind golden retrievers given the very best start in life, he's not going to "alpha roll" or do anything terribly detrimental so them. So I decided not to make a big thing of his telling me not to swap a treat for a toy he wanted his dog to give up because it meant Regal was dominating me.

    Instead, I'm trying to learn the very best positive methods I can so my Honey is a shining example of a positively raised puppy.

    It's going to take a long time for the general public to get to where you and other positive trainers are now. But it will happen just a bit at a time.

    Can I link to a post in this comment? I wrote about this recently myself here:

    And don't forget, older dog training methods were even harsher than those you see in the Dog Whisperer today. So we have made some progress.

  2. You're absolutely right, Pamela! Older methods were WAY worse! Your link was great! I like that you found commond ground. Like I try to tell people: I'm not a "hater" of dominance-based trainers, just not a fan of their methods.

    Someone gave me the wonderful advice of simply saying, "I prefer more modern methods of training..." when compared the DW. I like that. It sounds more intriguing than confrontational. ;)